The Surprising Truth About Baptism and Why Catholics Fall Away

vigil faith response

Outside at the Easter Vigil…I finally believed

It was the Easter Vigil before my 33rd birthday and I was plagued by a question.

If Baptism does everything it’s supposed to do, why do people fall away?

If my soul was changed when I was baptized as an infant and I became a new creation, how could I be indifferent to God and walk away from him?

Is it the case that sometimes Baptism doesn’t work?

The answer to that question was tied up in my newfound faith and the Easter Vigil where I realized–for the first time in my life–that Jesus was really, truly present in the Blessed Sacrament.

I learned about the Eucharist but it didn’t matter

I grew up Catholic and did the whole after school religious education deal. I’m pretty sure I learned about the Real Presence at some point–it just never mattered.

The only real thought I remember having about the Eucharist (and this is shameful) was that it tasted like cardboard.

I also remember being about 12 years old and a little bit indignant that I had to say, “I am not worthy to receive you…” Why wasn’t I worthy? I didn’t like that.

I stopped practicing Catholicism as soon as I was able. By the time I was in college, it was all done.

Eventually, I came back to the Faith

I ended up getting married to a woman in the exact same faith situation as myself…a cradle Catholic who left the Faith in her teens. My wife and I had both our re-version to the Catholic Church the winter before my 33rd birthday.

Our coming back to the Church was like a whirlwind. If you were there and blinked, you might have missed it!

It was probably around January when we started investigating Catholic teaching. By Lent we were praying the rosary every day and going to Mass regularly.

Over the course of that Lent, we became deeper and deeper ensconced in the life of the Catholic community at the base chapel–working with the homeless food ministry, teaching religious education classes on Sundays, and participating in RCIA.

Yeah, we could barely fog a spiritual mirror with supernatural life, but we were asked to teach 3rd grade CCD, and my wife was asked to be a sponsor for RCIA.

She took that RCIA role very seriously. After all, she was also trying to learn.

The night the Eucharist became real for me

So, there we were, standing outside the chapel at the Easter Vigil with Martha, the candidate my wife was sponsoring. It was the first time I had ever been to one.

I wasn’t really sure what was going to happen, but I had tasted the Eucharist before.

I turned to Martha and said, “When I was a kid before I made my First Communion, I always wondered what the bread tasted like.” I continued with a chuckle, “Then I found out. It tastes awful–just like cardboard.”

And just then, it hit me…that was Jesus! He was present in that awful tasting “bread” I was joking about.

I was taken aback, shocked at what I had just said. There was an uneasy look on Martha’s face as well. I just smiled a little and shut up, a bit embarrassed and humbled at what just happened.

I had never believed or cared what the Eucharist really was. That reality didn’t matter at all. However, at that moment, it was everything.

Baptism requires a response of faith

I eventually learned the answer to my question about Baptism. It always works. Just not the way you might think.

Baptism really does reconfigure your soul to accept God’s indwelling presence. You receive sanctifying grace and become a child of God.

And, it can change you from the inside out, totally redirect your thought and actions to God’s way of thinking and being. It can completely transform you into a new creation. But that doesn’t happen automatically.

When infants are baptized, they receive the capacity to believe. That’s the Virtue of Faith. But this capacity lies dormant in an infant, like a seed. It must be activated by a personal Act of Faith–a belief in God animated by hope and love. Only then will the grace of Baptism be unleashed into the soul.

If a child is never led to personal faith, Baptism has virtually no effect. It stays dormant. They’re still baptized but it doesn’t show.

That’s why children must be evangelized! It’s not enough to simply teach them the facts about Jesus. They must come to a personal belief in the saving power of Jesus Christ and accept it into their lives.

Catechetical takeaway

I had learned about God but not to believe in him or to desire his power and influence in my life.

When, over the course of that winter, I began to truly desire God and make him an active part of my life–something inside me changed. I began to believe.

Supernatural truths that once were beyond me now became real. And, all of a sudden, standing outside a church before the Easter Vigil, the truth of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist became a substantial reality.

Conversion is an essential element in the catechetical process because without it, you’re just spinning your wheels. Your baptized students have the capacity to believe, but they have a harder time actually believing.

Real belief requires more than comprehending and learning the facts of the Faith. It requires grace. A faith that is alive and active floods the intellect with this grace. And, you won’t get this kind of faith unless you evangelize before (or at the same time) you catechize.

Image credit: Steve Moses

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Comments

  1. Thanks for sharing your story, Marc. You are so right. We “sacramentalize” people in our catechetical programs, but don’t foster conversion very well. I am more and more convinced that if we don’t radically change our model of infant baptism, mostly doctrinal catechesis of children and youth and Confirmation as “graduation,” we will continue to see a rapid decline in the number of young adult Catholics. The problem is that they don’t stay long enough to reach full adulthood when they are ripe for real conversion. We keep on enabling this by what is prioritized in our programs – efficiency and uniformity – and then wring our hands when people who go through that “sacrament mill” don’t stay. We have to stop doing assembly-line catechesis and start finding catechists who can be relational and building up communities to be mentoring.

    Luckily, your story is proof that at least some of the time, God intervenes and draws people back to the Church when they are ready. Still, for every one of you, there are probably 10 or more who never come back.

    • The more I learn about Confirmation, it seems like treating it as “graduation” or a “Catholic Bar Mitzvah” is an abuse of the sacrament. It is a sacrament of initiation, not graduation.

      If youth catechesis is poor, adult catechsis is worse.

      Our parish rents educational space from a Protestant congregation next door. Protestants spent a LOT more time learning their faith. Bible study, Sunday school, and a good 30 minute (or longer) sermon at every worship service as opposed to the mediocre 10-15 minute homilies that are the only instruction in the faith most adult Catholics receive.

      It’s not a liberal/conservative thing either, as many conservative Catholics are poorly catechised in their own way. Most Catholics who leave don’t understand the faith and don’t have the community to keep them connected.

      • Marc Cardaronella says:

        Yes, there’s a problem all the way around. And even more a problem of getting people to engage with their faith after they learn about it. A lot of Protestant congregations seem to have that working to some extent. There’s an element of obligation for all that extra time spent at church outside of Sunday services but there’s also a large amount of engagement there as well. People enjoy going to those things and learning more. We need to get that. I think it comes from more real conversions.

    • Marc Cardaronella says:

      Yeah, I think I’m the anomaly in coming back to the Church unfortunately. There are some but definitely not enough.

      I agree with you. I think we do need to radically change our model if we want to make any progress. It’s so ensconced though, it’s a machine. It’s like turning the Titanic. But we are definitely headed for the iceberg and something needs to be done.

      That’s an interesting point about not staying long enough for real conversion. I have a theory that there are different stages in life where ongoing conversions can take place…each one draws you on to the next one. But the adult conversions are the ones that set the course for the rest of your life. I think we need to try to make those conversion milestones and draw people toward adult conversion. Of course, that’s definitely not happening the way things are set up now because most people just drop their faith after confirmation or high school.

    • Joyce,
      I think you are right about how we “sacramentalize” people. You also said: “We have to stop doing assembly-line catechesis and start finding catechists who can be relational and building up communities to be mentoring.” I think you are right. Have you experienced a parish that has a majority of catechists who are able to make this happen? If so please do share. 🙂

      Sometimes I think the most challenging aspect of changing is “how to do it” in a way that people can accept. For example, if I decided next year to not have my traditional Religious Education Program and shared that I’m going to be educating the adults I don’t think I’d have many people register.

      • Marc Cardaronella says:

        You know William, that is so true! I think the biggest obstacle we have in fixing these problems is dedication to the status quo. No one wants to make a change because that’s the way it’s been done or they’re afraid of alienating some others. To quote Jim Collins, “Good is the enemy of great.” How do we change our “good enough” programs to really make them great? That’s what I want to know and do! The first step…get out from under the grip of the textbooks.

  2. Mystagogy – the great missing link in Catholic growth and the reason so many adult converts don’t stay.

    • Marc Cardaronella says:

      I agree and going one step further, I think the parish itself should be set up for a kind of giant mystogogy that can lead parishioners to further conversion. Conversion is not a one time deal. It must be ongoing and continual. There’s only so much you can take in at any one time. Spiritual growth has to be gradual. That’s just the way we’re made. So, once there’s initial conversion, there needs to be a program set up to lead people to successive stages. I wonder if that’s not the parish’s job instead of an RCIA team or program.

  3. Marc, thanks for sharing this great testimony! Love these kinds of personal blogs…and the Eucharist/cardboard story is funny. 🙂

    Personal conversion *is* necessary. That’s enough to make a catechist tear her hair out (lol) because WE as teachers don’t control their conversion. It’s ultimately up to THEM and GRACE. My boss is a deacon, and he always says, “Faith is a gift. Believing is a choice.”

    • Marc Cardaronella says:

      That’s true isn’t it? No matter how hard I try to orchestrate it, personal conversion is still not controllable by me. It’s up to the person and the working of grace in their hearts. It’s such a crucial piece and yet completely out of our control. I guess that’s why we have to rely on prayer and know that we’re merely cooperating with God in the task of evangelization and catechesis. In the end it’s all up to him.

  4. What a gift to read your story! I like the way you distinguish between the indelible mark of baptism and some magic trick that instantaneously makes us believers. Conversion is the key – but we can only turn our lives around when others have started to point us in the right direction!

    • Marc Cardaronella says:

      Thank you Margaret! That really was a question I had because when you read about the theology of Baptism, it seems like it should just work like that…you should just automatically get faith. I think a lot of Catholics think that way as well and don’t understand why their kids fall away when they haven’t done anything to foster their faith. We absolutely need people to point us in the right direction. Of course, there’s no guarantees, but it’s better to understand this so you can try harder.

  5. I tell my 6th-graders that a 6th-grade understanding of God won’t be adequate when they are adults; so if they aren’t learning about God all the time they’re falling behind.

    • Marc Cardaronella says:

      Exactly! As always you hit the nail right on the head Christian. I think it’s the same for conversions. There’s 2nd grade conversions, 6th grade conversions, and on up. Childhood conversion won’t serve you when you’re a teen or an adult. You have to keep going deeper or you’ll fall behind.

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